Posted by: Tom Owen | August 30, 2009

The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy & Caste in America (1964) – E. Digby Baltzell, SPS 1932

The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy & Caste in America

Biographical Notes (adapted from Wikipedia)
Baltzell was born to a wealthy, Episcopalian family. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1940. After World War II service as a naval aviator he earned his doctorate from Columbia University. He later became the eminent Penn sociologist credited with the popularization of the acronym WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). The term changed perceptions of American society and even American history, bringing forth new insight into the workings of the ruling elite of America.

Those who knew “Digby” describe him as a dapper figure in tweed jackets and bow ties, popular in a slightly aloof way, but always courteous and accessible. He could often be seen pedaling an old one-speed bicycle between his DeLancey Place home and Penn’s West Philadelphia campus. It was apparent to students in his classes that he disdained the use of mathematical and statistical models as crutches to support sociological hypotheses. During the Vietnam conflict he once asked a class of predominantly male students the odds of being shot if one were sent into combat in Southeast Asia. After dismissing a few statistical responses from students, he gave the answer. “Fifty-Fifty,” he declared. “Either you will or you won’t.”

After serving on the faculty of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania from 1947 to 1986, he retired in 1986. Until his death in 1996 Baltzell was Emeritus Professor of History and Sociology. His accomplishments include being appointed to the Danforth Fellow at the Society for Religion in Higher Education of the Princeton Theology Seminary from 1967 to 1968, Charles Warren Research Fellow at Harvard University from 1972 to 1973, and Guggenheim Fellow from 1978 to 1979. He is member of the American Sociology Association, the American Studies Association, and the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

A group of devoted former students are currently working to raise funds for a carved stone gargoyle in Digby’s likeness which will be added to the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Quadrangle dormitory in preparation for a celebration of centennial of Digby’s birth in 2015.

In The Protestant Establishment, Baltzell is often mistakenly credited with inventing the ethnonym White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or WASP; Baltzell was not the first to use this term, but his seminal work made the term commonplace.

Despite Baltzell’s own WASP-y upbringing, he makes it clear that rigid class segregation is contrary to our nation’s founding principles.  The general class structure is essential, but social mobility is just as vital.  He writes:

“Our own best traditions have stressed equality of opportunity in a hierarchical and open-class society… But at the same time I am convinced that these traditions are being threatened in our time by the divisive forces of racial and ethnic prejudice.”

In a democracy, Baltzell writes, there is an “open elite” – every individual has the equal opportunity to elevate their social status given enough effort. Therefore, in an ideal democracy, the ruling class will constantly be in transition and open to anybody. The WASP establishment is a “closed upper class” – members of the elite by birthright, preventing others from sharing their status.  It’s actually a good thing to have a ruling class when its membership is based on ability, because it ensures strong leaders for the nation.  It’s only a bad thing to have a ruling class that prevents upward mobility – one of the primary reasons for the French Revolution.

“We have remained a relatively free and stable society largely because we have maintained a balance between the liberal democratic and the authoritative aristocratic processes.  On the other hand, there is a crisis in American leadership in the middle of the twentieth century that is partly due, I think, to the declining authority of an establishment which is now based on an increasingly castelike White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant upper class.”

Approaching its 50th anniversary, this influential text is well worth another look.


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